0

You’re either with us or against us

It’s important, now and again, to test the character of your children. Find out what they’re made of. See on which side of the fence the stand.

And it occurred to me a few days ago that my sugar-deprived, artificial-color-isolated children have never had to choose: Red Vines or Twizzlers.

We were in the hell of major-retailer-mid-December and I had a moment of weakness. So I bought a package each of the licorices in question, and I explained rivalries. I explained fake loathing. I detailed college football rivalries as an exaple. And then I explained all that rides on the question at hand.

After dinner I gave each boy one whip of each type of red licorice.

A lot hung in the balance.

Not just because I, naturally, want my children to share my taste. Nor because I, pathetically, want them to choose me over their father, the latter being a heathen of the Red Vines tribe, those who have no idea what they’re talking about when they proclaim that nasty wheat candy flavored with red air is better than Twizzlers. Those who blaspheme against candy when they lay their lame “they’re better when they’re a little stale” nonsense on the thinking world.

I told the kids to look, feel, smell the candy. They compared. They constrasted. They elaborated extensive comparisons. They liked the twist of Red Vines, the shine of Twizzlers, the smell of both.

Looking a bit foolish for even considering the Red Vines, they sampled and thus began their Test of Humanity and Worthiness.

Both spat out the Red Vines. Victory! These children are mine, they choose light over dark, they will never really align with their father…

But they both changed their mind. They had handed back their lame licorice; now they asked for it back.

Was this just because they ran out of candy and were willing to eat trash just to get their sugar fix? Was this because they’d been brainwashed? Had I failed them as a mother? I mean, other than the corn syrup and the red dye #Cancer?

Nope. They each took another bite and reluctuantly handed it back. They wanted more licorice, but not that nasty, foul substitute for real candy.

I gave them another two pieces. Might as well eat well tonight, boys.

Now, I’m not saying that discerning my children’s taste in red licorice was a watershed moment. It didn’t change our lives to know we align together, against the cretin amongst us who prefers wheat-flavored candy. We weren’t modified as people to know we stand with the righteous.

But that night, just an hour after the Twizzlers triumph, the boys chose, for the first time in their lives together, to curl up on the little one’s bed and fall sleep together. No fighting, no teasing, no meanness.

If red dye and corn syrup are all it takes to get this kind of harmony, I’m buying stock in corn and joining the Chemistry Association of America. Or the International Chemistry Lobbying Association. Or something.

[Sure, your explanations of why Red Vines are allegedly better are acceptable here. You can post them. I won’t delete them. But I will gaze upon you with the stink-eye you deserve.]

14

Low Expectations Holiday Gathering

‘Tis the time of the year for my annual celebration of hosting mediocrity.

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The invitations went out. By email. With no reminder two days before.

This is your casual, heartfelt, and festive but unadorned invitation
to our annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. Come to our house for a
minor-key gathering of joy, adoration, and minimal preparation as we
begin the seasons of Too Much to Do and Too Little Time.

Cheer with us an ambivalent welcome to Hanukkah, Winter Solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and any other cultural eating and drinking holiday you
embrace.

With music!

Come as you are, with your favorite minimal-prep-time food or drink.
We will be here, without any promises to clean or decorate, but with
warm exclamations of how much we cherish you in our lives.

Guaranteed to be unassuming, but not underwhelming.

RSVP so we know how big a pot of apple cider we need to leave
simmering until you get here.

The day before the party I bought some cheese. I’m not gonna lie: it was good cheese. The kids were fighting and I offered threats and bribes in equal measure so I could select a triple-cream brie, petite basque, herbed goat cheese, and salty mountain gruyere. Later I ate the gruyere and had to serve a cheddar/parmesan blend.

I cleaned the bathroom. Then went for a run.

A few minutes before the party was supposed to begin I surveyed the Martha Stewart scene I had created.

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Microwave covered in crap: check.

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Mantle undusted and still home to a Lego piece, Pokemon card, and related detritus I have no home for: got it.

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Decorative gourds still on the porch two holidays too late: handled.

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Wax-covered menorah ready for next week and almost hiding random Halloween gift bag I’m too lazy too move: check.

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Lots of crap shoved in a closet: nailed it.

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Bag nobody uses and box of important projects crammed under antique seating: perfect.

I knew then that we were ready to underwhelm.

I think we exceeded expectations, actually. Hard to disappoint when you promise fair to middling.

I’ll admit it: I moved the candy corn bag off the table. Because good cheese deserves better than that. But I didn’t move the cat toy.

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Or the spider ring and backpack tableau. Yes, seriously. So little effort required and so little given.

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7

Let’s fight at the beach!

Historically, the cure to sibling bickering and older kid nastiness on our family has been wide open spaces. Not the song…the real thing. Hiking or beach time soothes them into a partnership.

Usually.

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Today, however, older screamed at younger at home, then at the beach. Older screamed at me at home, then at the beach. After leaving the beach, older sobbed that I had ruined everything by convincing him to share the driftwood they both found together and both built with together and both wanted to use on a new project. I ruined his life because I encouraged him to let his brother build a solo project when he, the older, wouldn’t let the little guy join in.

Building together is fine, but then he when he wants space the rest of us must all cease life functions until he’s ready to tolerate us again.

I think that’s the message. I might be wrong. If I am, I’ll get yelled at, I’m sure.

What in the holy hell?

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I guess let’s just all be full of testosterone and anger and disrespect for the world perpetually thwarting us, shall we?

Goodness. I’m not equipped for this 8-year-old teenager.

4

Redefining baggage rather than ditching it

There are many things in my house that shouldn’t be here anymore. Not because I’m a hoarder, though, honestly, I have more of a tendency than I’ll admit on a blog.

But I’m not talking about dozens of unused tchotchkes or decades-old, half-eaten yogurt parfaits. I’m referring to items that represent a time in my life that’s gone; stuff that I should rightfully give to charity so someone else can make a life with my stuff sans the bad memories.

But for various reasons, I hang on to a few key items that both remind me of a painful time in my life and offer me a portal into the future. Not the flux capacitor kind. Just the “hey, I’m okay with the choices I’ve made so I’m moving forward despite not having a DeLorean” kind.

The most obvious, and frequently used items that some people might shed as life progresses, are remnants of my marriage.

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But it’s pretty easy to keep winding a gorgeous clock twice a day, marveling that it’s still as compelling to me in its metronomically clicking timekeeping as it was when we found it in a small mountain town on our honeymoon. I don’t need to still be in the marriage to appreciate the clock. Or the memory. Or the joy visitors find when they stumble upon the lovely mechanical creature.

The same goes for the wedding china. The kids and I eat off wedding china every meal, and some nights, the man who helped pick the pattern joins us. Do I want to be cooking several nights a week for four people rather than three? No, gentle reader, I do not. Do I cook meals to be enough for four anyway, and (somewhat) warmly invite the boys’ dad to join us when he comes over? Yes, I do. And whether he’s there or not, the plates are gorgeous.

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They’re important to me because they represent grownup decisions that I stand by even if I would now do things differently, given volumes of information and a dozen years’ additional experience. We all know that’s not how decisions work. There is no going back to change history just because you’re older and wiser and in a completely different place mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I stand by my life and I stand by my wedding china. (Plus, honestly, the stakes are much lower if kids break dishes—they haven’t yet, but I have. It’s not as though the tableware is any indication or harbinger of the health of our marriage. In fact, a dear friend recently broke a crystal wine glass, and it made me quite happy. Really. I use the wedding crystal every day, because we don’t have many fancy things, but the fanciness we do have I like to be part of my daily life. That one broken wine glass reminds me a of joyful, funny evening with people I love, and I’d rather have something momentous like a broken glass cement my gratitude than have a full set of unforgettable wine glasses and boring, forgettable friends.

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Maybe I’m blase about using fine china and crystal every day because I don’t care about stuff. Sure, that’s part of it. Maybe I don’t get rid of it because I don’t have many genuinely fancy things and it’d be a shame to ditch them just because I’m not married anymore. The relationship changed and did not survive, and the plates and glasses remain. No need to be weepy and metaphoric about it. They’re plates. And glasses. And maybe that’s because I’m not in pain about the end of my marriage. It was clear the relationship was over. Irreconcilable. Painful to maintain, kinder to dissolve. So sure the plates aren’t a big deal.

But these glasses are.

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The family who gave us these researched the best glasses for red wine, my favorite beverage (other than water), and chose these because they look a bit like beakers. We were science nerds together, and I respected and envied their research once I ditched the lab for a career in language. So they bought me carefully crafted nerd goblets to show their attention and care. We all married around the same time, and we supported each other. We had babies around the same time, and we supported each other. And they ditched me, saying I was too much. After fifteen years it finally dawned on them, it seems, that I’m not worth knowing.

But I still use the glasses. I got rid of every other gift they’d given me over the course of our long friendship, but I kept the glasses. Because the glasses are gorgeous. And they’re for red wine and for sparkling water, and I will not let them take from me the joy of red wine in a flawless glass. No, ma’am and sir. I will not. I am worth knowing and I am worth really nice glassware.

I don’t let the kids use those.

One of the items in my house that, by all logic should be tossed straight into the trash, will never leave my possession if I can help it. As with the treasures hand made by my grandfather, and the photos of beloved family and friends, I get weepy about this particularly dear item in the living room.

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My penny sculpture is a pile of coins made molten and fused by the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991. I retrieved them from the pile of rubble at the Parkwood Apartments, which had gone from a delightful roommate compromise to an elevated concrete slab of ash and post-apocalyptic barrenness in a matter of hours.

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When I repossessed the pennies, I had to sign a waiver stating that, to the best of my knowledge, these were my pennies. I’m going to be honest: I have no idea if these were my pennies. I have no earthly recollection whether I even kept a pile of coins in my bedroom at the time. But the penny sculpture, formed by natural forces and placed by the management company right near a coffee mug that had definitely been mine, claimed me when I saw them.

So I signed for the pennies, thinking, “damn it, there are dozens of fused-coin sculptures around here, and it’s not as though I’m taking one that clearly has a wedding ring or an heirloom necklace melted into it. I’m taking a small, worthless clump of coins that might or might not belong to me because I’m not fully functioning, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I cannot walk away from this tragedy with just a coffee mug that has a lump of concrete fused to it. I signed my name and bond that I was the rightful owner of the mug, too. I did not take or sign for some corningware that looked familiar. “I don’t want baking dishes,” I thought angrily, “even if they are mine.” A lot of corningware survived intact, and there were distinctive flowered logos on baking dishes with and without fused cement blobs in most of the regions on card tables marked by address with white copy paper and black sharpies.

I didn’t scan through all the items, as some survivors did. There might have been more to claim, I suppose, after the entire community burned to nothing in a 14,000 degree exploding landscape of eucalyptus and oak. But I didn’t care about getting more stuff. I went to the area labeled as our address, grabbed pennies and a mug, and left. Probably sobbing. I threw away the mug away soon after, some time in the beginning of the year of undiagnosed PTSD. I have no memories of that year other than a music class in which the room swam every time I opened my eyes, a smelly and disordered breakfast of seven hardboiled egg whites peeled on the walk to literature class, and a meeting with my counselor in which I asked to drop organic chemistry after two months of trying, desperately, to do homework in a cavernous frat house room.

I don’t keep and cling to and commune with the pennies to rub salt in a wound. I keep the pennies as a “holy fuck, if you made it through that, today is going to be okay” talisman. Because holy fuck. In fact, I should, rightfully, call them the Holy Fuck sculpture, but every time I ask if anyone has seen them, I call them My Pennies. Has anyone seen My Pennies? I moved My Pennies and I can’t find them…Peanut, do you know where My Pennies are? Wedding China Picker Outer, where are My Pennies? Yay! I found My Pennies! They’re just where I left them.

Of course they are just where I left them, placed ceremoniously in front of Foucault’s History of Madness or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood or the complete works of Faulkner. Or in the bird’s nest I found walking Peanut to school. Nobody is going to move My Pennies. Some objects are too important, both for the past and the future, for anyone to mess with them.

2

Did you look in the kitchen?

Tonight I couldn’t find my book. Could not. This distressed me for several reasons, the chief among them not the potential cost of rebuying a book or of trying to find my place again.
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Most of what frustrated me about not being able to locate the key piece of entertainment and escape in my day is that there aren’t very many places the damned thing could be.

Computer bag is the most likely place. Nope.

Desk? Nope.

Ah…hiding under the covers? Nuh-uh.

In the kitchen, next to either the stove or microwave, the two places I’m often putting down a book so I can attend to the whistling tea kettle? No.

On the dining room table where it often naps because of that space’s central location in our house and lives? No.

On the boys’ bookcase where I placed it when I traded my reading material for family time? No.

On the floor by my bed? By the LEGO staging site near the couch? In the car?

No, no, no.

I gave up. My phone was down to 20% charge and it was time to get on the train for a talk downtown, so I couldn’t get enough battery power to listen to a book. I grabbed a magazine and stuffed it in my bag, then stomped up the stairs, musing that I had actually been meaning to read The Atlantic article on midlife crises so this wouldn’t be a total loss.

I stopped in the bathroom and saw the magazine I skimmed three nights ago while the boys took their baths.

And right underneath, I remembered, was my book.

I like that my life revolves around family and food, LEGO, my briefcase, and a whistling tea kettle.

I just wish my memory could save me some damned time already. Or that I read frequently enough to remember where my book is.

Priorities, people.

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15

The end of almost daily blogging

I missed three posts. I made twenty-seven. I like two of those twenty-seven. Not bad.
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I’m descending into hibernation mode. As much as I love lights and celebrations and family and cocoa, this is the time of year I want to curl in a ball and cry for a month. The Counting Crows’ song Long December makes me stand immobile and bawl my eyes out every time. Every time. I once played it on a loop in December and drove from Quincy MA to the ocean near Cape Cod at 3am because Oh My God, December could you be any harder?

Seasonal Affective need for long days and sunlight, holiday obligations, end-of-the-year panic about not having done enough or been enough, serotonin-seeking bread consumption, knowledge that I have nothing to give yet knowing family and friends and colleagues and homeless neighbors all need me to…these are the colors that paint December gray on grey on silver on slate on granite on gray.

Even the word December gets me a little downcast.

So I’m going to try to wake up early every day of December and sit with my light box. Writing. Either the old novel or the new novel. No client work. No cleaning. No email or audiobooks.

Writing.

Not “every day writing challenge” writing, but”do it because it makes you feel whole and you really need something in December that keeps you feeling human” writing.

Goodbye, November. It’s been a lovely time, really. And I now take all my energy and ask myself to rise to December.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

8

Make hay while the sun shines

Because of Thanksgiving, Self-care Saturday has become Facial Friday. And that means the 20 minutes I spend scrubbing toilets and scouring the boy-grime out of our tub tonight also includes a light glycolic mask quickly smeared on my face as soon as the kids were in bed. No time like right now to exfoliate, I always say. Or sometimes say. Or just said right now on this blog, so at least I have it in writing and you can’t go back later and claim I never said it.

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[sure, you can buy a facial mask. But why not use the sand your nephew dumped out of his shoes on your floor? That’s making lemonade out of lemons, right there.]

I find these simple moments of bathroom-cleaning and pore-extraction multitasking leave me with not only my signature Glow of Accomplishment but also with Opportunities for Self Care amidst the Chaos of Life. I also feel that capitalizing random Moments as though they’re Life’s Lessons Writ Large helps sell my theories and ideas better. Because we all learned capital letters first, we all assume those who uses them most knows that mythical Something We Don’t.

Since the mask needs another five minutes to chew through my epidermis, and I’m sitting here in flannel jammies, leisurely panicking while I listen to the sound of rain sloshing from the gutters into the walls and eroding the house around me, I thought that I’d share with you some of my multitasking self-care tips. They apply equally to working moms, stay-at-home dads, grandparents in too many book clubs, and time-pressured people of all genders. The only readers who might not need ideas for cramming seven things into ten minutes are the many newly graduated, single, child-free, and slightly-employed 20-somethings who flock to my blog. Never fear, though, friends. Since you aren’t trying to shoehorn thirty activities into your one free hour a day, you’ll never notice that this post might waste your time. Because all of your time is free time. There’s no penalty for the extra 90 seconds reading this post will cost.

Some day, however, you’ll benefit from my genius. So read on with the rest of us poor creatures who need every bit of help we can get.

As already mentioned, apply a facial mask before you toothbrush the grout in the shower. If you find one that pretentiously lists chemical ingredients by the Latin name of their natural source, you’ll find that the time pondering mildew goes more quickly.

When you’re driving to school, then a different school, then work, then the first school again, then the second school, a lively podcast will make you feel as though you’re engaging with the world around you. When life conspires to keep you locked in a mobile machine for most of the day, try The Serial or Radiolab. You’ll get to vascillate between how clever you are and how deprived of genuine human contact you are. And seeing both sides of an issue will keep that pesky self acceptance at bay!

Since preparing meals requires a significant portion of every adult’s day, let’s all do ourselves the favor of putting the power of MOOCS to work for us. Nothing compliments carefully julienned peppers like History of Physics. You’ll be amazed at how quickly time flies when you’re trying to hold complex theories in your head while timing the preparation of stir fry. And if mistakes happen, remember that there’s a 30 second rewind button, a modern 911 system, and 10 somewhat redundant fingers.

Finally, use your self-care multitasking ideas to boost your income! Start a Strolling Cafe where people get a cup of coffee, then join their friends on side-by-side treadmills. Using what you learned from your online physics course, modify the equipment so nobody can walk faster than 3mph. That saves your gym from spills and keeps away annoying runners whose insistence on sprinting while reading is making the rest of us feel grossly unproductive. Make sure, too, to alter the view so the floor-to-ceiling glass panes don’t actually reveal the harsh world outside, but rather reflect a dream scenario in which sunshine and genuine racial and gender equality drift comfortingly past the multitasking coffee walkers.

See how easy it to be Glowingly Accomplished and Culinarily Edified and Socially Fit?

Delightful.

7

Nausea before gratitude

There are many things in my life for which to be thankful. And I have to focus hard to find them right now, through a cloud of nausea. Because this seemed like a reasonably good day, but it went downhill fast.

And then again, this is not a particularly good day in hindsight. I befuddled priorities, didn’t listen well when colleagues spoke, got only minimal exercise, and didn’t play with my kids as much as I would have liked. I’m grateful I recognize those failings so I can do better next time, and I’m grateful I have that chance.

I may not be a great parent, but my youngest begs for lettuce and balsamic vinegar every time we're in a store with a salad bar. I'm grateful for his patience with spring mix.

I may not be a great parent, but my youngest begs for lettuce and balsamic vinegar every time we’re in a store with a salad bar. I’m grateful for his patience with spring mix.

This is not a particularly good evening in my parenting, and though the boys were quite pleasant together today, they weren’t at all nice on a phone call to grandparents, then they were nasty to each other at bedtime. I’m grateful that I told them, each time they were playing well, that I noticed their kindness; I’m grateful that their dad was over for dinner so he could help me separate them when the little one turned South for the evening. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try again tomorrow, for I naively believe that if I focus on the positive and give them tools to minimize the negative, they might some day make honorable citizens. I’m grateful for that hope, even if it’s naive.

Last night was not a particularly good opportunity for sleeping. Though I was overjoyed to have the older child ask for company at night, he is a raging inferno, and I spent most of the night awake and hotter than hell. And we were joined in the middle of the night by his little brother, a walking furnace himself, who sleeps like he’s auditioning for a slasher movie. All night the two cats, who normally ignore us all and prefer each other’s company, decided that anything moving in the roastingly hot bed full of thrashing children was a plaything that needed a solid biting. And my injured shoulder still wakes me up at night, more than a month later. I’m grateful that my bed was hopping with 8,000 degree cat toys to distract me from my shoulder. What a blessing to be in the presence of my darling children as I get a free preview to menopause’s hot flashes while having my toes pierced by sharp teeth. So very grateful.

The little guy's favorite position is entwined. Here he's on my lap, tightly hooking his leg around mine. He does the same at night. Wraps legs around legs or arms around arms or fingers in hair. He needs to be inseparable. I'm grateful he needs to physically hold me hostage.

The little guy’s favorite position is entwined. Here he’s on my lap, tightly hooking his leg around mine. He does the same at night. Wraps legs around legs or arms around arms or fingers in hair. He needs to be inseparable. I’m grateful he needs to physically hold me hostage.

This is not a particularly good evening in my marital discord, and I have that adrenaline hangover that lasts long after a small disagreement when the stakes are so high. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with my parenting partner toward an ideal separation that honors our kids, and I’m hopeful that better setting expectations will help. I’m grateful I notice what a petty, impatient creature I can be, because it offers an opportunity to improve.

This is not a particularly good evening in culinary achievement. The roasted root vegetables for tomorrow are a bit underdone, and reheating in the communal oven tomorrow likely won’t bring them to the right texture; and the roasted three-color cauliflower is perfect, which means it won’t reheat well. I’m grateful for the large, joyful family who will criticize my food tomorrow, and grateful that they all think I’m a tough enough old bird that they can mock most of my decisions. I’m grateful I will have roasted leftovers to eat, all alone, in my sleeping-kids hours of self evaluation in the cold light of failure. I’m grateful that tomorrow night’s second reheating with either cure the root veg, or will help me stoke the pout flames.

but it tasted sooooo good tonight and I thought I could get away with it.

but it tasted sooooo good tonight and I thought I could get away with it.

This has not been a particularly good week in personal choices. A malaise has flummoxed food, exercise, errands, chores, and parenting choices. Not sure what’s ailing me, but I’m grateful my basic needs are covered such that I have the luxury of malaise. And misanthropy. And melancholy…I’m grateful for my melancholy. And who doesn’t love a good spell of misanthropy? I’m thankful for the opportunity to remember why I despise humanity. In fact, I’m grateful that I’ve run out of my favorite hot chocolate right before stores close for a day and then are replete with the worst of humanity for another day. I’m glad my chosen form of self-medication is unavailable for at least two days. Such scarcity will make me a better person, for which I’m grateful.

There’s no room in my privileged, blessed life to go to bed pouting about all the things I screwed up today, nor the things other people screwed up that I feel compelled to fix. I didn’t yell at my kids or my estranged husband. I didn’t buy anything stupid in an online Black Friday spree of “well, if it’s Wednesday and on sale, it must be a good deal so I need it” nonsense. I thought about it, but didn’t click the pay button. I showed up to the work day (the one in which I didn’t feel I listened hard enough) which puts me ahead of all the other colleagues who could have done the same but didn’t. And I not only changed the sheets on three beds by myself while ignoring my shoulder, I flipped and rotated the mattress on the top bunk. By myself, somewhat one-armed. I’m grateful, in that light, that I’m a superhero.

3

The Missing Post

This is not today’s post. This is yesterday’s post.

Why the semantics/replacement/transmogrification?

I planned to post last night. Right after the kids went to bed. Butter fell asleep quickly, with me curled up next to him reading the last chapter of The Prisoner Of Azkaban by the laser-beam of our impossibly bright book light. Peanut listened from his upper bunk and when I put the book away, wiping away tears borne of Harry’s joy, Peanut asked if he could sleep in my bed.

“Of course.”

He rarely does, unless he’s really scared. He prefers solitude, and I don’t blame him. But finishing a book is monumental to him, and he wanted company.

“Are you working tonight, or going to bed soon?”

I thought of NaBloPoWriMo’s mandate to post daily. I thought of dirty dishes. I thought of a mess in the living room and a desire to meander through various retailers’ online deals.

“I’m not working. Just let me brush my teeth.”

So I went to bed at 8:30 to be present for a child who wanted me with him.

And I will post later. For today.

But for now I’m well rested and happy and have taken one of those rare opportunities to replace “I can’t; I have work to do” with “Anything you need, my love. Anything you need.”

9

Please don’t ever

Please don’t ever stop mispronouncing the words that you have made your own in that sweet little preschool voice. I really hope that you keep “no known shield protects from my light saver!” and “ready, sgabetti!” and “n-o no; y-o yes!” forever.

Please don’t ever get in a car without a seatbelt or if the driver has been drinking.

Please don’t ever feel embarrassed about the need to sneak into my bed at night to rest your head on my pillow and mumble groggily that you were lonely.

Please don’t ever drink so much that you lose control, or put any substance in your body that will fundamentally alter the part of you that makes you so amazing: your brain.

Please don’t ever stop trying to bribe me by saying I’m the best mommy EVER when you want something sugary.

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Please don’t ever ignore someone hurting another person or an animal. Stand up. Be you.

Please don’t ever feel it’s okay to add croutons to a panzanella salad. That’s double bread, son. I won’t stand for it.

Please don’t ever doubt that I love you, regardless of what you do. Please know that I love you even more if you realize you have been a jerk, and come back to apologize. Heaven knows I do that often enough.

Please don’t ever stop telling me long stories about your day. I love that you still talk to me and trust me. I will endeavor to continue earning your trust.

Please don’t ever take the last piece of chocolate, unless you live alone. Not even if it is to cure you after a run-in with the dementors. Someone else always needs the last piece of chocolate more.

Please don’t ever do anything that makes you feel that you are being untrue to yourself. Trust your gut. If it feels wrong, do not do it.

Please don’t ever take life too seriously. Except that part about the croutons. I’m serious about that, boys.

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2

Moby Dick Parenting

When a friend posted on his blog that one of his favorite artists, Matt Kish, was selling off the original artwork he created for every page of Moby Dick, I clicked right over.

I actually dislike a fair percentage of Melville’s text, but there are some moments in his novel that resonate. I spent seven years studying literature, plus a reading of Moby Dick in high school, which lands me squarely in the “well, damn it, after reading it three times I at least appreciate it, so show me whatchya got” camp of Moby Dick art lookeylooism.

And as I scrolled through the artwork, I realized that the most compelling images correspond with parts of the story that I’ve always connected with. Not man vs. whale, because honestly that trope is too annoying for words; but man against natural elements and against darker forces within himself.

I love these images drawn and painted on found paper by Matt Kish, each inspired by a line from Moby Dick, and each recalling for me some of the hardest moments of parenting.

And my post yesterday inadvertently featured the artwork, so here’s a detailed look at each.

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Moby Dick aphorism #6: “When a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact.” I have to admit, this one makes me smile, then choke back the sob that still lives in my throat remembering the intense undertow yanking violently at me when I was the sole source of everything for newborns.

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“‘I say, pull like god-dam,’ cried the Indian.” The vivid graphics of this and the wave of rhythmic belief in the way Matt penned the words gives me courage when I don’t have any. Melvillean racism aside, I’m buoyed and girded by the Indian’s entreaty.

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“A sort of badger-haired merman, with a hump on his back, takes me by the shoulders, and slews me around.”  This piece is, for me, the most aesthetically beautiful. This is ocean and woman and chaos and man and embodiment and swooning all at once, and I love it. The mental image, too, of a rough and scruffy sea-creature just shaking the crap out of me evokes the paint-spattered, tyrannical toddler who has to power to absolutely upend my life, one moment to the next.

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This I selected with the intention of hanging it over my son’s dresser to calm me and ground me when nighttime rituals went all to hell. “So, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all the Typhoon. It will sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb upon a dazed and sleepy town.”  Resplendent, oceanic, dire, exploding, sudden? Yup. That’s my kid, and I love him. And instead of placing this in his room, I centered it with the other art in the living room. It’s the frame most often threatened by children illegally jumping on the couch.

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My photo of this is terrible, so here’s the original.  I love so intensely that the found paper on which Kish painted this vicious and tempered and vibrant art is the dedication page to a book that says “To my Mother and Father with Fondest Love.” Because juxtaposing that parental adoration with the text is priceless. “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.” Melville had it all over Freud, because Superego besting Id has nothing on sharks well governed.

This concludes the art tour of my living room wall. Join me tomorrow from the art on the other side of the room.  Maybe.

4

Roller coaster Saturday

Most mornings begin abruptly: my eldest wakes and sneaks downstairs, pausing to hug me good morning only if I catch him at the top of the stairs and get his attention. The little one wakes soon after and goes off in search of his brother.

The bickering starts ten seconds later. I suggest kindness, they fight. I suggest they find solution, they fight. I get up and stagger into whatever room they’re electrifying with their nastiness, and they keep bickering.

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It’s a rough way to wake up. This morning was no different. But instead of helping them navigate their fight about whose pillows were past the halfway point on the couch, I just sat between them. With my book.

And they moved on. And got their own books and joined me, each nestled in a pillow fort on either side of me.

It was glorious. After five minutes one said he was hungry. Best five minutes of my life, I smiled to myself. And I didn’t hold my breath that the peace would linger.

But it did.

And I made them pancakes and they laughed and played and thanked me.

And then started bickering again.

It was very, very nice to read between them. And it was exceedingly nice to have peace until almost 9am.

I won’t hold my breath on it happening again. But I wouldn’t say no to it, either, in case the boys call you and ask if if like this morning repeated, say…tomorrow.

4

Changing My Name

When Spouse and I were planning our wedding and marriage, I spent copious time on what to do with my last name.

A rose by any other name might be a sunflower.

A rose by any other name might be a sunflower.

Not on the actual “to change or not the change” debate that most women engage in. I did that relatively briefly. I didn’t mind ditching my last name as long as my partner would, too. I refused to be chattel, I would not change my name to his. Period.

And asking a man to change his last name to a new family name was exactly the litmus test I wanted, anyway. I needed a high stakes kind of guy. And I found him on the first try.

I highly prioritized having the same last name as my children. I had this irrational image in my head as I thought of marriage and of retaining my birth name, of my child’s school rifling through emergency contacts, doubting that I was the mother because I had a different last name. That’s crazy, of course, especially given that I live in the “Fly Your Freak Flag High” capital of the world, in which I’d guess at least a third of mothers (and most of my friends) have a different last name than their children (many families here hyphenate, or create a blended name for their child(ren), so that when Ms. Brown and Mr. Jones marry, their children are Brones. Poor things.) But I wholeheartedly rejected the tradition of semantically abandoning my family to join a husband’s family. We were starting something new, and as a family we would honor the tribes from which we came but not in conventional ways.

So most of my name machinations before the wedding centered on creating the new last name both Spouse and I would take. I engaged the process like any naming project for a client: we had a strategy session to determine our core values. We detailed a voice for our family and carefully drew a target for our new name’s sustainability, euphony, credibility, readability, and, instead of URL availability, overall lack of serial killers with the same name.

It wasn’t as cold and corporate as it sounds. The strategic phase took less time than it does with clients because we had no competitive audit to complete. And because we’re not branding a conglomerate. It’s a little family, for heaven’s sake.

We coined and triple checked Harkin based on its resonance with the ideas we wanted encapsulated in our name: haven, hearth, heart, family, warmth. As a bonus, Harkin is a homophone for hearken, which means to listen.

Also, there were no serial killers named Harkin.

So there we had it: a new family, a new name, a defiant cry against patriarchy. (And murder? That’s both strategically and temperamentally consistent. Bonus.)

Fast forward eleven years, and I have a very simple answer to those who ask if I’m changing my name back to my birth name once Spouse and I process paperwork to become Not-Spouses.

No way.

We created this name to represent a haven from the world: our family insulated and cozy against all onslaughts. And that’s what I still want our family to be, regardless of how many houses we live in. I changed my name so my children and I would share the clearest linguistic tie available to families: surname. Regardless of our marital status, Spouse and I both lay claim to being founders of the Harkin clan. We both deserve this name. Neither of us gave it to the other. We earned it. We made a family. We will now put some solid distance between two members of the family. But that doesn’t change our core values as a family. We’re still hearkening to heart and hearth and kinship.

And we’re all going to keep our name.

three years into the name someone else earned it, too.

three years into the name someone else earned it, too.

7

On calling a spade a spade

This morning, I was trying to find my lightbox. It’s finally raining in California, praise Neptune, and moisture is so welcome I have to hide my fear of all things dark and cloudy.

But I really can’t make it through winter, even winters that are overcast only 10% of the time. I have biochemical needs, y’all, and bread can’t fill all of my seratonin gaps.

And as I pulled all the sheets down to look in the linen closet, my first thought was, “Seriously, woman, why don’t you fold your sheets?”

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My second thought was, “I should really learn how to fold fitted sheets. My grandma can do it, and I’m pretty sure it’s what defines civilized people from uncivilized.”

My third was, “What a bunch of hooey! There is no correlation between civilization and fitted sheets. None. There is no reason I have to fold anything in this linen closet. I am a good person and I absolutely reject the notion that my worth and my family’s happiness revolve around the status of my stupid effing sheets!”

The lies we tell about “should” are increasingly unraveling my thin hold on propriety.

Because here’s the thing. For a long time women were expected to keep house. And there were no floors, but they swept dirt floors. And there was one set of sheets and they washed in the tub (or creek) and scrubbed on the washboard, and they wrung out sheets and banged them against rocks. And they hung their clothes to dry.

And I have no idea what that was like. Maybe I would have folded my sheets.

But now I have an electronic box into which I type my ideas, and buttons to push to get those words sent places, and sometimes someone pays me for those words. And from that box come tales of others in desperate need, forsaken by their government or their employer or their family and pushed into small corners by violence or racism or hatred or hunger or disease.

So you can take your folded fitted sheets and shove them in your linen closet, but I’m fresh out of fucks to give.

I refuse to buy into the bullshit of what I should do. I have never folded my sheets, and though there is something dark inside me telling me I’m wrong and bad and weak for not folding sheets, I absolutely refuse to start now. No way. Folded sheets don’t make me grown up. Making tough choices and doing the best I can and remembering all of every day that I am not the only human trying to make my way on this planet, and that, in fact, many of the rest need help seventeen levels beyond folded goddamned sheets…those are the things that make me a grownup. Holding up friends as they die and bringing dinner to a family whose child is dreadfully ill, that is what makes me a grown-ass, don’t you dare tell me about fitted sheets, woman.

You know what I thought as I defiantly rolled up the sheets and shoved them in the closet after I found my lightbox? I thought, “Eleanor Roosevelt sure as hell wouldn’t want me folding fitted sheets.” What has stuck with me most over the past few days since I finished the biography examining the personal lives of those in the White House during World War II, are two relatively simple concepts: 1) women’s role in society is almost always circumscribed for her by others and 2) really great thinking requires taking long and frequent breaks.

Doris Kearns Goodwin makes very clear that Rosie the Riveter was persona non grata after the war. “Yeah, thanks for the help, but we were kidding about you being important.” Once all the efforts of women on the homefront helped secure peace, years of begging women to sacrifice for the country, of asking them to work as hard as they could, had produced results beyond anyone’s hopes. Women kicked ass in the factories. They owned their work. And they loved doing it. According to Goodwin, 79% of women said after the war that they preferred work to being at home, and 70% of those were married with kids. They preferred being with others doing something meaningful to ironing and folding fitted sheets. Of course they did. So the women wanted to continue to work. But factories fired them without a second thought, telling the women who made the American war effort possible that they weren’t wanted.

And that’s when the propaganda morphed from Rosie the Riveter to Suzy Homemaker. This is the part ringing in my ears a week later…the ads that for years promised automatic dishwashing and automated clothes drying to enable working women were all of a sudden ads for intricate recipes that took all day to prepare. Magazine articles that had urged women to help their men by helping the military-industrial complex became articles about how children whose mothers work grow up to be delinquents and criminals. (All of this is paraphrased, from my faulty memory that is boiling in rage against linen closet manners. This is not my thesis, it represents the tea leaves left in the bottom of my cup by Ms. Goodwin. If you want the exact wording from No Ordinary Time, get it from your library and read for yourself. For now, all you have is me and my seething indignation to go on, so roll with it.)

And so what is the propaganda telling us now, I’ve been mulling this week? Be thin and pretty and submissive, paint yourself perfectly, write the code but don’t criticize what the code depicts or enables, be there for your kids all the time unless you’re a CEO, buy lots of things, have a bucket list, spend time in nature, care about those in need, meditate, do yoga, put away your phone, buy another phone, be fully present every moment of the day, promise to sleep a lot but cheat and barely sleep so you can play the ‘I’m more tired than you are’ game of personal success, and eat only what you’ve grown yourself and spent 48 hours sprouting and 12 hours preparing but then god help you if it’s not raw and exactly as it was hunted by cave people.

Because pancreas. Or something. Spleen? Spleens that you need if you’re freediving, for that burst of oxygen just before you die? Save your freediving spleen with the paleo love of coconut and dates!

Geezus Cheeses on a Cracker. What else are we supposed to do? Please, do give me another list. I’m sure you can tax the limits of human endurance further.

So I see balled up sheets, I begin to tell myself to fold them, and I rage against post-war misogynist propaganda for a while.

Easy enough, right?

Nope. Because the other thing that stuck with me about No Ordinary Time is how much time FDR spent relaxing. And I’m not making any allowances here for his physical pain and exhaustion, and I note that. But I’m not mocking his leisure, so I feel rather free to recap the man’s daily schedule, which included a lot of sleep and entertainment. I’m reiterating what I understood from the book: that his leisure, including copious time spent with good friends over good food and good wine and good games, was integral to his ability to create. That without nightly card games and trips to the islands, he never would have come up with lend-lease. The guy woke late, ate, read, worked a bit, ate, relaxed, worked a bit, and held court in the library every evening. He played cards and spoke with friends and took some time to stare across the yard now and then. And he was a war-time President. I’m guessing he had quite a few things to do. I mean, he didn’t have to submit FSA receipts by the end of this month, or anything, but still.

Still.

He managed to take a break several times a day. We don’t do that. As a culture, we don’t do that enough. There are now articles telling you that it’s important to let your brain rest. To do some dishes and let information sink in so you can really process it. The are gorgeous, moving diatribes against productivity that render me incoherent with longing and sadness and a renewed refusal to fold my sheets.

So what is this bullshit about doing everything and having everything? I can’t do or have or be everything. Can’t. Won’t.

I will not fold my fitted sheets.
I will not do yoga retreats.
I will not make my nutty spreads.
I will not make my family’s beds.
I will not mop the stupid floor.
I will not scrub my muddy door.
I will not put my dear self last.
I will not eat my food so fast.
I will not say yes anymore.
I will not take on tasks galore.

I will not keep a crazy pace.
I will not join your insane race.

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4

Minor Book Spoilers

Thought I’d come right out in the title and say there are spoilers herein, but I won’t start them until I warn you specifically.

The root cause of this post is that I want you to either listen to or read No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. Go get them both from your library or independent local bookseller. One’s a history, one’s a novel. They’re both remarkable and I must get you to read them. Or, really, listen to them. They both make ideal audiobooks.

Back to the promise of my title…I despise spoilers. I absolutely won’t read the back cover of books or the reviews because there are so darned many clues to the book that I want to discover, not be handed. I don’t want to know before I read a text where the basic story is going. I don’t want to know how many years Mitchell’s new book spans (thanks for nothing, NPR) because even that bit of information sets up an expectation and the beginning of my calculations.

So in this post, I will warn you of minor spoilers (the type most readers don’t mind), and what I call SPOILERS, which are genuinely much less informative or revealing than any major book review is. So I’m overly careful with what I warn you about. Because I try to preserve your unsullied reading experience as much as I can. I prefer to read completely uninformed, and I assume out of kindness that you do, as well.

Completely unwitting is how I began listening to Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel when I downloaded. And after approximately 4 lines, I was completely hooked.

[next paragraph contains minor spoiler about format and structure]
I’m not sure I will listen to many novels on audiobook, because I prefer to read fiction so I can pause, reread, and stop on the visual placeholder of a word rather than hinging on voices. But [minor spoiler alert] Eggers’s book is entirely dialogue. This theatrical set up is very kind to the audiobook format. When I heard the title page and the list of voice actors, I was confused. It’s very rare to have an audiobook have more than one narrator. (Another minor spoiler alert: Gone Girl had two, because the novel has two narrators.) But each character needed a voice for YFWATATPDTLF to function as an aural text.

Holy gobsmacking guacamole salad, y’all. You have to hear this book. I don’t know if you have to read it. I haven’t read it. I’ve only listening to it read by highly skilled voiceover actors. The New York Times Sunday Book Review was not kind to the novel, in part because the reviewer missed several nuanced points about the characters and dialogue. And I believe the audiobook and the actors cast in the roles were the difference between my interpretation and Phil Klay’s.

[Next paragraph contains SPOILER about acting choices in the audiobook version]
The reason Klay missed something rather important may have been that he read rather than heard the book, for he seemed to have not understood that many of the characters seek to fool the main character. They agree with or disagree with him at various times with the intent of beguiling. Klay seems very angry that some of the characters would agree with wildly inappropriate speeches by a character, but the way I heard the text, those agreeing were patronizing the speaker. Perhaps the acting choices of the audiobook performers made me more aware of this. Maybe giving Eggers the benefit of the doubt for having meticulously rendered several highly flawed characters allowed me to see the dialogue for what it was: not Franzian political diatribe but nuanced interpersonal psychological chess.

[End of Spoilers, and you may now laugh at my definition of spoilers. I warned you. I want to know nothing in advance and try to give you the same courtesy.]

I highly recommend listening to Eggers’s novel. As a character study of desperation and humanity, it’s compelling. As an audiobook, it’s ideal.

I also highly recommend listening to Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. As a historical study in the way personality flaws form the shifting sands on which history explodes, it’s riveting.

[Update and enormous spoiler, November 19, 11pm: Phil Klay just won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel Redeployment. His misinterpretation of an exchange in Eggers’s novel between the main character and the Senator lies in his misreading a suggestion for the isolation of mentally unstable people as a suggestion for the isolation of former soldiers. Eggers does not conflate the two. The main character does. There’s a big difference between the main character thinking he’s like a war survivor, and the Senator humoring him, and Eggers thinking that all war survivors are crazy. Klay simply misunderstands, an error which I believe would be solved hearing the book rather than reading it.]